John Babbacombe Lee
John "Babbacombe" Lee
John Henry George Lee
15 November 1864
|Died||19 March 1945(aged 80)|
|Occupation||Cause célèbre for surviving three attempts to hang him for murder|
John "Babbacombe" Lee (c. 1864 – 19 March 1945) was an Englishman famous for surviving three attempts to hang him for murder. Born in Abbotskerswell, Devon, Lee served in the Royal Navy, and was a known thief.
In 1885, he was convicted of the brutal murder of his employer, Emma Keyse, at her home at Babbacombe Bay near Torquay on 15 November 1884 with a knife. The evidence was weak and circumstantial, amounting to little more than Lee having been the only male in the house at the time of the murder, his previous criminal record, and being found with an unexplained cut on his arm. Despite this and his claim of innocence, he was sentenced to hang. At times, he was thought to be "the man you shouldn't hang" due to suspected divine intervention.
Attempted execution and aftermath
On 23 February 1885, three attempts were made to carry out his execution at Exeter Prison. All ended in failure, as the trapdoor of the scaffold failed to open despite being carefully tested by the executioner, James Berry, beforehand. The medical officer refused to take any further part in the proceedings, and they were stopped.
As a result, home secretary Sir William Harcourt commuted the sentence to life imprisonment. The Home Office ordered an investigation into the failure of the apparatus, and it was discovered that when the gallows was moved from the old infirmary into the coach house, the draw bar was slightly misaligned. As a result the hinges of the trapdoor bound and did not drop cleanly through.  Lee continued to petition successive Home Secretaries and was finally released in 1907.
Later years and identifications
After his release, Lee seems to have exploited his notoriety, supporting himself through lecturing on his life, even becoming the subject of a silent film. Accounts of his whereabouts after 1916 are somewhat confused, and one researcher even speculated that in later years, there was more than one man claiming to be Lee. It was suspected that he died in the Tavistock workhouse sometime during the Second World War.
However, more recent research concludes that he died in the United States under the name of "James Lee" in 1945. According to the book The Man They Could Not Hang, Lee's gravestone was located at Forest Home Cemetery, Milwaukee in 2009.
- The Life Story of John Lee, or The Man They Could Not Hang, a 1912 film
- "Babbacombe" Lee, a 1971 album by Fairport Convention
- Waugh, Ian. "THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG". bbc.co.uk. BBC. Retrieved 8 July 2015.
- Home Office report HO 144/148/A38492 XC12399
- Solftley, Sarah. "A shadow of doubt - the story of the man they couldn't hang". BBC. Retrieved 18 July 2016.
- Jupp, James (2001). The Australian People: An Encyclopedia of the Nation, Its People, and Their Origins. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. p. 525. ISBN 978-0-521-80789-0.
- "The Man They Could Not Hang". Bbc.co.uk. 14 October 2002. Retrieved 30 September 2012.
- "Where Is John Lee?". Ianwaugh.com. Archived from the original on 21 November 2008. Retrieved 30 September 2012.
- "Found at last... 'Babbacombe' Lee's final resting place". Express and Echo. 19 March 2009. Retrieved 18 July 2016.[permanent dead link]